In a mountain forest glade Rautendelein, a beautiful elf-child, sits singing and combing her long, golden hair while calling to a water spirit, the Nickelmann. She makes fun of the croaking froglike monster who comes out of a nearby well. Into that setting skips a faun who seems enamored of the lovely sprite and who invites her to be his love. She refuses, as if this is not her destiny. When she leaves, the wood and water sprites discuss the intrusion of man in their hallowed realms, the sprites that day forcing off the road and into a valley lake a bell meant for a mountaintop church. The bell-founder appears, quite exhausted and badly injured from his fall. He collapses before the cottage of Wittikin, a witch whom mortals in the region greatly fear. Her granddaughter, Rautendelein, strangely drawn to the thirty-year-old Heinrich, makes him a bed of straw and gives him milk to drink.
Heinrich is also drawn to this beautiful creature whose speech is song and who makes him glad to leave the mundane life below. He tried to match the musical note of her voice in his supreme creation, the bell in the lake. He calls her his sweet fantasy and the glade his real home. He begs for a dying kiss. Wittikin tells the child all mortals die while they, the mountain folk, Thor’s children, must go about their immortal business.
When voices interrupt a merry troll dance, Rautendelein fears she will lose this strange man. A wood sprite answers the rescue party, which consists of a clergyman, a teacher, and a barber—envoys of the outer world of spirit, mind, and body. The Vicar, spirit-weak, cannot go on, though the Barber urges them all to leave the bewitched area and the Schoolmaster declares such an attitude mere superstition. Frightened, each addresses Wittikin, who in turn ridicules their master-worker and his trade as well as their respective callings, for she and her kind hate clanging bells and all human enterprise. The villagers carry Heinrich away as a group of elves and sprites dance furiously. Rautendelein also dances, though she tells the Nickelmann her spirit is not in it. They examine in wonder a tear from her eye, a globe of human pain. Thor flashes out and mocks her with raindrops. The Nickelmann warns her not to live with this half-man who belongs partly in their world, but she turns to the world of men.
In the meantime, the bad news reaches the bell-maker’s home. Magda, Heinrich’s wife, tells a neighbor what labor the task had cost her husband and then goes off to meet her husband’s body, terribly disconcerted by the pallbearer appearance of the rescuers. Heinrich revives and, speaking as one already dead to his anxious wife, begs her pardon for hurts done. He renounces his great work as a misshapen thing providentially destroyed—a work for the valley rather than for the mountaintops. Saying that he now wants no part of this world of flesh, he refuses all aid and becomes unconscious. The Vicar will not seek aid from Wittikin; but Rautendelein, thought to be deaf-mute Anna from the wayside inn nearby, breathes life into the body while the villagers seek other help. Heinrich, recovering,...
(The entire section is 1281 words.)